The aggressive films Martin Scorsese is best known for are not the ones he feels most passionate about.
Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, The Wolf of Wall Street all have his mind. His soul, however, belongs to his more contemplative efforts like Kundun, The Last Temptation of Christ and now Silence.
Quite literally so in the case of this new film, a testament to the mystery of faith that Scorsese, a sincere but questioning Roman Catholic, has wanted to make for nearly 30 years.
Silence mirrors Scorsese’s split impulses. At its root, it’s an extreme and visceral journey not unlike Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), wherein a protagonist is tasked with investigating and addressing reports of a rogue western messiah who has fallen prey to a “soul gone mad.” Scenes of severed heads and other forms of torture and mutilation are common to both scenarios.
Embracing Silence on this level finds propulsive drama, which screenwriter Jay Cocks adapts from an acclaimed 1966 historical novel of the same name by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, documenting the true story of religious persecution of his country’s Christians by feudal lords and Samurai.
Set in the 17th Century, Silence tracks two Portuguese Roman Catholic missionaries, Jesuit priests Father Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), as they travel undercover to Japan to search for their missing teacher and mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Their cherished leader has reportedly apostatized — renounced his faith — while ministering to outlawed Christians, according to information received by the priests’ concerned superior (Ciaran Hinds).
The other way to encounter Silence is in purely metaphorical terms, wherein the arduous journey symbolizes the travails of a faithful but questioning Christian. It’s something that Scorsese himself mentions in the forward to an English translation of Endo’s novel: “Questioning may lead to great loneliness, but if it coexists with faith — true faith, abiding faith — it can end in the most joyful sense of communion,” he writes.
This more cerebral approach to the film, equally valid, is where Scorsese may falter a bit, although his sincerity is unquestionable. He perhaps assumes too much about the viewer’s understanding and acceptance of Catholic doctrine, especially the concept that apostasy is inherent in the story’s central motif of trampling upon an image of Christ. Failing to do, as demanded by the Japanese as proof of capitulation, results in swift torture and/or death not only for the erring Christian, but also his or her brethren.
One concerned figure remarks about those who would value a religious symbol ahead of saving their own lives and those of others: “I worry that they valued their poor signs of faith more than faith itself.”
But we must remember that this is the 17th Century, not the 21st, and fear and superstition blow across the landscape like the heavy mist that cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto captures to evoke approaching terror. The score credited to composers Kim Allen Kluge and Kathryn Kluge (with assistance from Robbie Robertson, Scorsese’s frequent collaborator) is even more fundamental, felt more than heard.
The actors are steeped in the drama and mysticism of the moment, especially Garfield’s stoic Rodrigues, who emerges as the central figure and also narrator of this journey into the unknown, both the physical and metaphysical.
It would be easy to demonize the Japanese in this context, but Scorsese refrains from doing so. He balances his western cast with some of Japan’s leading actors, notably Yōsuke Kubozuka as a guide of mysterious motivation (and deep significance) and Issey Ogata as the leading tormentor known as The Inquisitor.
Ogata’s Inquisitor seems almost comic at times, like the showbiz Pontius Pilate character from Jesus Christ Superstar. But he makes the serious point that the Japanese are trying to drive out the Christians because they view them as noxious invaders, encroaching not just on their Buddhist beliefs but also on the country’s land-based economy.
He has his reasons, which are neither Christian nor merciful but are at least understandable.
The unseen deity of Rodrigues’ devotion remains a profound mystery, worthy of Scorsese’s scrutiny and begging the question posed by the film’s title and a priest’s lament: “Why does God remain silent in the face of torment?”